Authors: Laura Landon
As the sun sank below the horizon, Hannah washed the bloodied gown as clean as she was able—but the body it covered would never be clean again.
She was a wicked, shameless woman. A whore. A woman beyond redemption. That is what a man of the cloth had condemned her to be. But she would not allow him to destroy her.
Somehow she would rise from the hell she faced now. But she’d learned her lesson. She would never trust a man again—especially a man of the cloth.
Fifteen Years Later
annah nearly skipped as she walked through the flowering meadow. It had been so long since she’d been to the country she could hardly take everything in. The smile on her face refused to dim. She couldn’t believe she’d almost turned down an invitation from her friend Caroline, the Marchioness of Wedgewood, to join her family for a two-week summer party at the Wedgewood country estate. And Grace, the Duchess of Raeborn, would also be there. Grace and Caroline were her dearest friends. How could she have refused?
All of Caroline’s sisters would also be in attendance, each with her husband and a growing number of children. There were fourteen by latest count, but by year’s end Hannah knew there would be at least two more.
Her smile broadened as she remembered seeing Grace when she’d arrived the day before. It was obvious Grace was increasing again. Although Raeborn was probably a nervous disaster, Grace was aglow with happiness.
Hannah savored the warmth that tugged at her heart. She was responsible for Grace and Raeborn discovering one another. Although it had been anything but blissful in
the beginning, everything had turned out far better than anyone could have imagined.
She wanted to laugh. Who would have anticipated that a match having its beginnings in Madam Genevieve’s famous bordello would ever turn out so perfect? But then, who would have thought Madam Genevieve, one of London’s most famous bawds, would be invited to a party hosted by the Marquess and Marchioness of Wedgewood and attended by the Duke of Raeborn, plus a smattering of earls, viscounts, and barons? There were times when friendship far surpassed anything London Society could imagine.
Hannah swung her arms as she continued her walk, then turned to her left when she reached a narrow path at the edge of the meadow. When Lady Caroline heard that Hannah wanted to go for a walk while the rest of her family either napped or took care of the smaller children, she suggested Hannah travel in this direction. According to her instructions, there was a small brook only a little farther, with a perfect little resting place that overlooked a quiet stream.
Hannah was excited for the opportunity to be by herself. She was excited to have the chance to escape London and the worries she’d left behind. Although she knew the city was where she belonged, there were times when she needed to be by herself. When she needed to think. This was one of those times. Things were getting too dangerous for her, as well as for her girls in London, and she feared that when she returned, she’d have to take actions that would cause trouble. But that was in the future. Until then, she intended to enjoy every minute of her time here.
Hannah stopped along the path and listened. Her excitement rose. She was near the brook. She could hear its rushing water. She gathered her skirts and ran toward the sound.
The air left her body when she first glimpsed the sight before her. Huge green trees lined the water’s edge. Their arching limbs spread out far toward the middle of the stream. Rocks of all sizes edged the brook, made smooth by the quiet waters. And the grass all along the banks was the deepest green. The sight left her breathless.
She walked to the water’s edge and looked down into the depths of the stream, so crystal clear she could see the smooth pebbles at the bottom. Every once in a while, a fish broke through the surface as it swam downstream. It took nearly all her resolve not to remove her clothes and step into the inviting water, though such a thought was out of the question. She couldn’t, however, stop herself from removing first her shoes, then her hose, and sitting on the brook’s bank. With a cry of delight, she lowered her feet into the stream.
The water was cool and refreshing, and she wiggled her toes beneath the surface like she had as a young girl, when she’d been able to sneak away from her father’s watchful eyes. She’d often gone to a stream similar to this one and walked barefoot in the water. That is, until the day her father had discovered her absence and came after her. When he found her, he beat her with the strap he was so fond of using. From then on, she had never returned to the stream if there was a remote chance he might see her.
Hannah shook her head to erase such memories. She refused to think of her father. He’d been dead to her for
almost fifteen years—dead to the rest of the world for the past year—and that’s where she intended for him to stay.
She swished her feet in the water as if the movement could wash away any thought of him, then leaned back and rested on her elbows. She lifted her gaze to the sun. The warmth of its glow spread throughout her body and let her pretend that the last nearly fifteen years had never happened. She smiled.
“I have no idea who you are,” a low, smooth voice said from behind her, “but I’d give everything I possess to capture the vision and never let it go.”
Hannah pulled her feet from the water and turned. Her gaze locked with eyes as deep and rich as the finest Swiss chocolate. Eyes that possessed a warmth unlike any she’d seen before. And a countenance brimming with kindness and gentleness. She started to rise.
“No, don’t move. Stay where you are. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I mean you no harm.”
Hannah lowered her feet back into the water and watched as the man walked toward her.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said in a voice that wrapped around her like plush velvet. “My name is Rafe Waterford, the Marquess of Wedgewood’s brother. I was invited to visit during the summer party. As, I assume, were you?”
Hannah nodded. She tried to speak and couldn’t find her voice. She couldn’t do anything but stare into the stranger’s magnificently handsome face.
He smiled. “Would you mind if I sat?” He motioned to a spot near her on the bank.
“No. Please. Sit.”
He lowered his tall, lean body to the ground next to her and pulled his boots from his feet, then his stockings. “I hope you don’t mind, but you have the right of it. The water looks entirely too inviting to pass up.”
Hannah tried to pull her feet out of view, but there was no place where they could be hidden. Finally, she gave up and relaxed. Lord Rafe was hardly the first man to see her body. Her feet were the most innocent of what men had seen.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” he said, lowering his feet into the water.
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” she answered.
His smile, when he turned to face her, stole her breath. There was something about him that drew her to him like metal to a magnet.
“Did you just arrive?” she asked, knowing he must have, or she would have noticed him yesterday when she arrived, or at least last night at dinner.
“Actually, I haven’t yet arrived. I’m on my way to the manor house just now. I live a short distance from here in the dowager house. Since it’s vacant, Thomas has given me use of the place.”
“How fortunate for you. Are you alone?”
“Are you asking if I have a wife?”
Hannah felt her cheeks redden. “Excuse me for being so forward.”
“Not at all,” he answered. He pressed his hand over his heart and breathed a loud sigh. “Alas, I haven’t found my one true love, although not for want of my family’s trying. They are forever introducing me to the
Hannah laughed. “I know Caroline and can well imagine her attempts to find you a wife.”
“Although Caroline is quite accomplished at playing matchmaker, her efforts pale in comparison to my other sister-in-law, the Lady Prosser, my second brother’s wife. She is convinced that matrimony is the ideal life for all men. And now that I’ve reached the ancient age of thirty, she feels that time has run out for me to find a bride on my own. She considers it her Christian duty to assist me in finding a wife.”
Hannah shook her head. “I feel you are doomed then, sir. One woman’s efforts to see you married are dangerous enough, but when two females conspire, there is no hope for you.”
“I will have to be on guard, then,” he said, splashing his feet in the water as if taking a stance.
Hannah could not help but laugh at his antics.
“What about you? Surely you have a husband, although I’m at a loss as to why he would allow you out of his sight.”
Hannah felt her cheeks warm. “No. Like you, I have sworn off matrimony.”
His expression turned serious. “You have my sympathy, then. Whatever turned you away from marriage must have been very tragic indeed.”
Hannah turned her face. She
uncomfortable talking about this. Uncomfortable pretending there’d ever been a chance that she would marry.
“Ah, I see I’ve touched on a painful topic. Please, forgive me.” He moved his feet beneath the water for a few moments, then stopped. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, though.”
Hannah turned back to face him. “Excuse me?”
“I don’t know whether to call you miss, or my lady, or Your Grace, or Your Royal Highness.”
She laughed. “Definitely not Your Royal Highness. You may call me miss. Miss Hannah Bartlett.”
“Very well, Miss Hannah Bartlett. Why is it that we’ve never met before? I assume you are an acquaintance of my sister-in-law.”
“Not your brother’s?”
“Heavens, no. He doesn’t have nearly such good taste when it comes to choosing friends. You are definitely a friend of Caroline’s. Her taste is impeccable.”
“Actually, I’m friends with all of Caroline’s sisters, although I confess to knowing Lady Caroline and the Duchess of Raeborn best. I grew up near them and we were of an age.”
“Then you knew my sister-in-law in childhood?”
“Yes. We were friends from little on.”
He laughed. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.” He paddled his feet beneath the water. “Perhaps you can be persuaded to enlighten me as to what kind of young lady she was?”
“You want to know about her childhood?”
“Haven’t you ever asked
about her youth?”
“Yes, but I only hear tales of her best conduct. To hear her talk, she was perfect growing up. As were all her sisters.”
“So you want me to reveal the mischief she got into?”
His feet paddled faster. “Yes, exactly.”
Hannah shifted on the grass to see him better and saw an impish twinkle in his eyes. “May I ask why you
want me to betray one of my best friends with tales of her disobedience?”
“It’s very simple. Lady Caroline has contrived to wring from her husband every misstep I made growing up—”
“Of which I assume there were many,” Hannah interjected.
“I admit I wasn’t a saint as a youth. I didn’t acquire that status until later in life.”
Hannah shot a look in his direction and saw an expression of innocent sincerity on his face. She couldn’t help herself and burst out laughing. “Oh, you are terrible,” she said through her laughter.
“My point exactly. That’s what my dear, sweet sister-in-law mistakenly thinks. I want to point out that her husband might have given her the wrong impression of me.”
Hannah pulled her feet from the water and tucked them under her skirt, then turned to face him. “You want to blackmail her.”
Lord Rafe clasped his hand atop his heart and feigned shock. “You wound me, Miss Bartlett. Mortally.”
He fell back to the ground and clutched his chest as if reenacting Hamlet’s death scene.
She laughed again. It suddenly dawned on her that she’d laughed a great deal today.
She returned her gaze to the man who’d given her such entertainment. “Methinks you will survive, my lord. I’m sure you’ve had much practice feigning your innocence.”
He rolled to his side and rested his cheek in the palm of his hand. His gaze locked with hers.
His movement brought him much closer to her. Hannah fought the rapid pounding of her heart. She didn’t want
this. She couldn’t allow her emotions to sneak up on her as they were doing—as
was causing them to do.
“Do you visit Lady Wedgewood often?” he asked, lifting his chin to look her in the eyes. “I would hate to think you were a frequent guest and I’d missed you until now.”
Hannah shook her head. “No, this is my first visit.”
“Perfect.” He sat. “Then you haven’t seen the sights.”
“Yes. Wedgewood Estate has many interesting places to see. There’s a maze in the south garden. It’s quite one of the best I’ve ever seen. When we were young, my brothers and I repeatedly attempted to lose our younger sisters there.”
“You didn’t,” Hannah said on a laugh.
“Oh, yes. Constantly. Our father finally threatened us with a belt if we ever left the girls behind again.”
“I don’t blame him,” she said. She felt the need to stand up for females being abused by their older brothers. “How old were they?”